Pale Rider

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I’ve never been a big fan of Westerns. I remember when I was younger thinking they were quite boring, or at least all the ones I attempted to watch at the time were boring. Oddly enough, in reading some of the film criticism that links Kurosawa with Sergio Leone and the Western genre, I became willing to take a second look, so to speak, at the Western. A few years ago I watched Unforgiven, which I thought was quite brutal but unsatisfying — Probably because I have no background in watching westerns and so don’t have the background to understand the ways it plays with the genre.

In any case, a few weeks back I was browsing channels on my TiVo and saw that Pale Rider was going to be showing. I queued it up, let it record, then sat down to watch it the next day.

PaleRider1

I’ve never seen this movie before. In fact, I don’t recall any Westerns I’ve seen with Clint Eastwood in them. I feel like this is a pretty big gap in my cultural knowledge, considering it’s basically where his entire career started. I had thought Pale Rider was the last of the series of movies in which Eastwood plays his Man with No Name character, but apparently that’s not entirely true. IMDB informs me that there’s strong implications that the character Eastwood plays in Pale Rider is his Man with No Name character, but no definite ties are made.

Eastwood plays a character who is known only as “Preacher,” arriving in a town which is, as usual in Westerns, beset by bandits or thugs. The central conflict of the story is a fairly typical one, with a group of miners-slash-settlers having a claim to land which is wanted by a greedy politician/capitalist. The Preacher intervenes in the conflict on the side of the miners and goes through various scuffles before finally defeating the thugs and mercenaries that threaten the peace.

Surprisingly, I actually really liked this movie. The religious overtones throughout the movie add a bit of mystery to Eastwood’s character — He first appears, fading onscreen, as a young girl prays for vengeance. As he rides into the town, the girl is reading the passage from Revelations from which the movie draws its title. Later, Eastwood’s character has taken his shirt off and many gunshot wounds are visible on his back in locations that would normally kill or paralyze a person. We never know whether Eastwood’s character is merely a tough-as-nails human or an agent of divine intervention. I enjoy that uncertainty.

He also has an interesting relationship with the young girl, who sees him as an angel sent to answer her prayers, and her mother. Eastwood’s character seems to have a bit of history with the mother of the girl, though a lot of that is unexplored (and possibly related to earlier Eastwood westerns). However, as I watched the movie I did get the sense that, perhaps, Unforgiven is intended to fit within the context of the story told in Unforgiven. The saintly woman Eastwood’s character marries in Unforgiven changes him, and the relationship the Preacher has with the mother in Pale Rider shows that he is at least softened by her. It’s plausible for me to think of the characters as the same, or at least continuous along a spectrum of the development of the Western gunfighter hero.

Overall I was surprised at the general modernity of the film. I’ve seen the tricks and tactics used in the gunfights countless times, but I can’t fault the movie for being copied. I don’t know whether this film was the original in any sense (particulaly having been made in 1985), most likely not, but it’s certainly well-executed in deceiving the viewer and building up a sense of mystery about how the Preacher is so cunning and deadly. On several occasions we don’t even see how he dispatches his opponents, again contributing to the mystery of whether he is supernatural or merely uncannily skillful for a human.

And I must say, that Eastwood is quite good in this film. I don’t ever recall seeing a scene as intense and heart-pumping as when the Preacher meets with the villain for a drink. Though no shots are fired, no punches thrown, the scene manages to completely outshine any of the action in the film. Eastwood’s look, you’ll know it if you’ve seen it, is probably the most apt I’ve ever seen for the description “bloody-minded.” Amazing, and worth watching for that alone.

I’m putting this down as a must-see. Even though I’ve been lukewarm on Westerns as a genre before, and unencouraged by some earlier forays, this film has made up my mind to at least check out Eastwood’s earlier efforts.

2 Responses

  1. I’ve never been much of a fan of Westerns myself, but I do enjoy the Sergio Leone ones. But those are more “exercises in style” than “western stories.” Sam Peckinpah made some good ones too, and there are a couple by Monte Hellman with Jack Nicholson that are pretty interesting.

    I’ve not seen Pale Rider, but I would probably like that in the same way. The thing is, the Western as a genre hasn’t really been a “vital” one; making a Western nowadays is like making a movie in black-and-white–more of a self-conscious artistic choice rather than something dictated by necessity (or the story).

    Someone once said that most science fiction films were just westerns set in space…certainly Outland (with Sean Connery) took this route rather deliberately. Maybe that’s where the westerns have gone…

  2. Agreed on the bit about being a self-conscious choice of stylization. I kind of feel like there’s got to be something there, though.

    I suppose, in retrospect, I did see and enjoy Wyatt Earp. I wonder if that sort of escapes my general apathy towards Westerns by virtue of being biographical — That perhaps the Western as a genre for telling anything other than a [semi-]historical tale doesn’t excite me.

    Regardless, you’re absolutely right about science fiction. Firefly/Serenity comes to mind. That definitely captures the essence of the frontier.

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